A Daughter's Journey to Loving her Dad
My relationship with my Dad was less than ideal. For most of my life he suffered from major depression. He was never diagnosed or medicated, but all of my therapists suggested that, based on my shared experience of his characteristics and erratic behaviors, he had bipolar disorder. He also grew up in an abusive home, had a terrible relationship with his parents and suffered from significant childhood trauma. One could say the chips were against him.
There was a lot of anger in his spirit. Anger from his abusive and traumatic childhood. Anger that his attempts at success did not come to fruition as he had hoped. Anger that people did not see or understand his ideas that would change his industry. Despite his anger, he tried his best to show kindness and love to my mom, me and my sister. It didn’t always work out as he planned, or imagined that it would.
He struggled to break the cycle of abuse and was verbally and psychologically abusive to us. My experience of my childhood was not as bad as his childhood, but it still sucked. I remember an immense amount of pressure to be perfect, to be focused on success, to be loyal to my family and hold them as the most important thing in my life. My dad was very intelligent. He had several degrees and certifications. He loved to debate and always pushed me to argue with him, so that he could win and prove he was intellectually superior. In tandem to the debates, an average conversation with my dad would normally include a great compliment and some praise, and then an hour or so later I would endure a massive verbal assault, undoing any emotional high I may have experienced prior. Maybe this was his cycle of abuse kicking in. Maybe it was reflective of his depression. It was likely both. No matter, it sucked.
My mom experienced the worst of my dad’s abuse with years of manipulation, lying, scare tactics, berating and demeaning. It is a wonder she is capable of any sort of “normal” communication at all. I was a senior in high school when she told my dad to move out and that she wanted a divorce. She had been miserable, abused and depressed for years, and had finally mustered up the courage to free herself from her abuser. I was so proud of her - I still am. At her most powerful moment, my dad did his best to belittle her; he told us he was shocked and broken by my mom and her unwillingness to get marriage counseling. He didn’t know that my sister and I both saw this coming and had begged our mom to leave him. This was a defining moment for me. It was THE moment when I saw that a woman could do anything. If she didn’t like her situation, she could change it, no matter the perceived risk.
As an adult, I had the choice to decide whether I wanted to have a relationship with my dad or not. I made several attempts that would follow with months of me not communicating with him. The first few were shitty, divorced kid attempts, where he used some sort of cash or bribery to win me over and I willingly obliged. Attempts like vacations, a car, and a new computer, were his only opportunity to buy time with me and even those were lies. For instance, the car he “bought” me was repossessed after a year. On some level, I believed this was karma for me. I should have given him a real chance instead of being a shitty kid acting out after a crappy childhood. I shifted my behavior and gave it another shot.
My dad was not a drinker when I was growing up. After the divorce, he started drinking and quickly became an alcoholic. Still an unmedicated depressive, the alcohol fueled a rage I had only had a glimpse of as a child. His drinking started to escalate around the time I “gave it another shot” and it did not go well. Growing up with my dad was tough enough, the alcohol added a level of shit I was not prepared for. I never knew when I would get a nasty phone call, letter or email from him telling me how I was a crappy daughter, a crappy person, a crappy _____. Drinking unmasked his true personality. I was so grateful that alcohol hadn’t been present in my childhood. It would have been so much worse.
I kept living my life. I moved to another region of the country so he wouldn’t be able to just pop in for a visit, and I wouldn’t be available to have dinner or let him stay at my house for weeks at a time because he couldn’t hold down a job or pay rent regularly. He would try to call me when he was drunk from other people’s phones in the hope that I would answer so he could give me a verbal lashing. I stopped answering my phone. One year on my birthday, he sent me two emails. One was a response to a previous email in which we were arguing about why I moved away, the other had a subject line that read “Happy Birthday.” Naturally, I chose to read the “Happy Birthday" email instead of the reply email, thinking it would be nice to read some nice birthday messages on the one day of the year that is supposed to celebrate me. Nope. The “Happy Birthday” email contained all the shitty, nasty messages about our argument and how terrible I was as a person, daughter, citizen, and student. I put about a year or so between us after that email. It stung too much.
In 2010, I met my partner. He was a smart, funny, quirky, beautiful, and accomplished man…who was a bipolar alcoholic. At the time, I had discovered that most of the people I knew were alcoholics and that didn’t bother me as much. But the bipolar part shook me. I really liked this guy. I felt so deflated when I found out he was bipolar. I decided I didn’t want to give up on him and the idea of us. If he really wanted to date me, he would need to be medicated. He started seeing a doctor and got on medicine for the first time in his life. Very quickly after we met, I became pregnant with our son, and life has been a whirlwind ever since (I'll save this for another post).
I struggled with what to share with my dad about my new life. I know he inherently wanted me to be happy, which to him meant I would be married and have a family. I would likely never have introduced my dad to my partner, except that my dad got sick. His brief stint as an alcoholic brought severe physical trauma. The alcohol had taken its toll on his body and it was shutting down. This happened three times. Each time, the ICU team placed my dad in a medically-induced coma to attempt to save his life and lessen the severity of his detox. My dad's first near death experience in 2011, I flew to see him in Florida. My partner came with me but I asked him to stay in the waiting room. I beat myself up about my childish behavior and went to see my dad to say my goodbyes. He looked terrible and had undergone surgery. He was glad I was there. Once released, he resumed drinking, undoing the difficult detox process, and furthering the tremendous damage to his body.
The second near death experience, in 2012, I took my partner in with me. I introduced them and this was the moment that my dad did two critical things: 1) he met the love of my life. He shook my partner’s hand, quite firmly, and for the first time in my life I saw that my dad was truly proud of something I had done. He was proud of the specimen that was my partner. I made a good selection for myself, and he approved of my selection. And, 2) he lied to me. He told me that he would stop drinking. He told me that he knew it would kill him and that he would stop because he wanted to live and to meet my son someday (I had not brought our 8 month old son because I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to go down that road, and because the hospital would have terrified him). Once he was out of the hospital, he resumed drinking, undoing the difficult detox process, and furthering the tremendous damage to his body.
His third time in the hospital was in 2013, I was 36 weeks pregnant with my daughter when my sister called me to tell me dad was back in the ICU. This time she wasn’t sure he was going to make it. I was not cleared to fly, so I did the best I could to support my sister from where I lived. It was a tough few weeks. After the same medically-induced detox process, the ICU team and Doctor were pretty sure he wouldn’t come out of it this time. They eased him out of the coma and because he was DNR we started the process of placing him in palliative care. My sister was having her own struggle: for the previous few years she was the one taking care of this bipolar alcoholic man who didn’t want to live each time he came out of the hospital. I think the finality of this hospital trip was closure, as difficult and messy as that can be most times. Once he was in palliative care, we knew it could be a few hours or a few days before he passed away. We did not know that he would start talking, seemingly healthy again. My sister was devastated. She thought this was the end and now it seemed like it wasn’t.
The next few weeks, he very slowly deteriorated. I struggled with what to do. Do I go down there and say my final, final goodbyes? Should I try to get home to support my sister? Should I stay put because there were not many modes of transportation that a 40 week pregnant woman can endure for 1000 miles? I was still angry with my dad for lying to me. He wouldn’t be in this final situation if he had stopped drinking like he said he was going to. I was an emotional wreck and totally unsure about all my life choices.
My dad smoked cigarettes and had a distinctive smell about him. These major times when my dad was in the hospital, when I would go into my son’s room at night, I would smell my dad. I think he would leave his body and come spend time with my son. I felt this very strongly a few nights in a row; that is how I knew he was really close to dying. I approached my doctor and asked him to induce me. He agreed to do so, given the family emergency. I was induced and my daughter was born at 3:40 pm on December 10, 2013. By 7pm, my father had passed away. I waited too long.
I wrote my dad’s obituary while I nursed my new baby in the hospital. She was only a few hours old and my attention wasn’t on her. It was on my dad. I was so angry with him, with myself, with nature's life cycle. He couldn’t wait 5 hours so that my daughter could have her birth day to herself? She will have to always share her birthday with his death day. Thanks a lot dad....I felt this way for a while. I think a small part of me still does. But the intuitive part of me knows that he wanted to be there for her birth. I think in many ways he was.
My daughter is turning 4 in a few months. It is getting easier to celebrate her birthday and not think about it being the day my dad died. I have also started to see my dad’s life for what it was: his attempt to reshape his perspective of life and love after enduring so much hate, violence and rage as a child. He did the best he could. That is all we can ever do.